Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


For too long I viewed Arlington as a pleasant if utilitarian suburgatory. News update: We’re bidding fair to evolve into an urbane mecca for the arts.

But not easily. At an event dubbed “Arlington Arts Day” this month, I was pleased to impartially moderate a panel on how to cultivate a strong arts movement-which in today’s dry economy is a bit like nurturing hot-house flowers.

Sponsored by the Leadership Arlington (a sort of executive training service for community pillars), the confab at the Arlington Arts Center assembled a county arts official, a volunteer from the Arlington Arts Commission, a private developer with a stellar record in support for the arts, and a working artist with her own company.

Not many artists care for bureaucracy, of course. But crucial to penetrating the state of the arts in Arlington is knowing that the commission in August published a long-term strategy looking out to the year 2030. It’s also revealing that the county recently moved its Cultural Affairs division into its Economic Development department. And the much-disputed Artisphere has undergone big changes under a new business plan that intertwines it with local arts interests public and private.

Far from being a subsidized playpen for high-brows, the arts, the panelists agreed, spread creativity that builds the economy and makes Arlington desirable living space. A good arts policy must be fair and known to all aspiring artists and grant applicants. The major challenge is marketing.

Artisphere, that dome-shaped experiment in Rosslyn that some budget hawks call a boondoggle, is undergoing a “mid-course correction,” in the phrase of Karen Vasquez, Arlington County’s new director of cultural affairs. Originally, “the Artisphere strove to be free from the constraints of a singular vision, performance type or audience,” the revised business plan notes.” But that caused confusion over who is the intended audience.

So the one-time site of the Freedom Forum is now open five days a week rather than seven. Its restaurant (which only last year was considered its missing ingredient) has been demoted to a bar. And there are new lines of communication on facility rental by hometown artists and performers.

“County support could go down, but never to zero,” said Vasquez, noting that few arts centers survive on ticket sales alone.

John Seal, the finance director for two public-private partnerships, sees Artisphere as a way to keep Rosslyn’s buildings occupied and the streets lively at night. He said Arlington’s arts spending is modest compared with other jurisdictions, and he rattled off numbers on profits for restaurants in the vicinity of arts outlets.

Kevin Shooshan, director of leasing and marketing for the Shooshan Company, said Arlington imposes tougher-than-average requirements on developers, but his company makes a priority of public art, even on construction sites, giving artists low-cost exposure.

Shooshan’s donation of five years’ free rent at Ballston’s Liberty Center to the Bowen McCauley Dance. Co. was appreciated by Lucy Bowen McCauley, the company’s artistic director and creative force. Quoth she: “There’s a reason it’s called show business, not show arts.”

The good news for Artisphere is that it recently pulled off a coup. Scheduled for late February is the North American premiere of an exhibit of photographs owned by famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. It’s the fruit of Arlington’s sister-city relationship with Kahlo’s town of Cocoayan, Mexico.

Call it cross-pollination.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com